Shalom Aleichem -
This week we read a double Torah portion - Vayakhel and Pikudei, closing our reading of Sh’mot, the Book of Exodus. Moses has come down from Sinai with the second set of tablets and with a radiant face. He gives the Children of Israel their instructions for building the Tent of Meeting and we read of the magnificent artistry of the Ark, the curtain, the Menorah, the altar and the priests’ vestments.
Sealing the holiness of the endeavor, Moses begins by reminding the Children of Israel: "On six days work may be done, but the seventh day shall be holy for you, a day of complete rest for God; whoever does work on it shall be put to death, Your shall not kindle fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day."
There are so many things to say about Shabbat - beginning with God’s abstinence from work in the second chapter of Bereshit, Genesis, to God’s blessing in Isaiah for those who keep his Sabbaths. There is profound beauty in the mystical imagery which is part of our liturgy, our poetry, our literature. There are the myriad practices to preserve Shabbat, to make it spiritually and psychologically sound and full of meaning. It is God’s and yet it is ours. It is unconnected to the rhythms of nature and it is connected to rhythms which are greater than nature. It is one of our ways of affirming again and again the creation, the redemption from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai. In prayer it is our time to affirm and thank and praise, not to supplicate. It is indeed a piece of the world to come.
But instead of talking about those beautiful things, I thought is might be more useful tonight to bring in a dose of Shabbat reality. Let’s talk about actually observing Shabbat here, in the near western suburbs, particularly if you have kids or happen to find yourself among them often, and you’re a little anxious and disengaged at the prospect of making Shabbat part of your life. Let’s keep it really simple - Friday night only - and meet next year to talk about Saturday.
Now, some of you may be "pros" at preparing for and making Shabbat, so that at the appropriate time the candles are lit, the table is attractive, the food is ready, Shalom Aleichem is sung, the wine and the day are blessed, the Sabbath Bride is among you. You guys have another cup of coffee.
Because I suspect that for many people here, like for me, making Shabbat is a work in progress.
I was raised in a family in which my mother always "benched licht" and we almost always had challah, and sometimes we recited kiddush (but just blessing the wine, not the day). So things were somewhat familiar when as an adult I started observing Shabbat with my own family. And let me tell you, it wasn’t easy.
I started small, like you’re supposed to, and quite self-consciously, with candles and challah, and with an overriding sense of inauthenticity. But I cleaned and cooked and set the table with our best. And I would gather my family to welcome the Sabbath bride and instead I found myself confronting the warmth of the family fight over who lights the candles, who says the Motzi, and whether or not we should bless the dog. Now, I have a wonderful sweet family - but when I gathered them round my guys looked at me as if I were from outer space, and they rolled their eyes, and made jokes, and rivaled each other to be the first to leave the table. This mode of welcoming Shabbat went on for quite a while - we’re talking more than months here - and I was sure I was doing something wrong and that this was not the authentic Shabbat it was meant to be.
I’ve spoken to some other women about this and found astonishing solidarity and support for what I thought had been our family secret.
One summed it up saying, "That warm feeling I try to create is often lost by people blowing out candles, lighting paper to see what happens, taking 800 pieces of challah, complaining about the challah, complaining about the choice of challah cover, and [my favorite,] telling me the chicken is "almost as good as school lunch."
She also says that from her home another Jewish home can be seen through the window. Candles are glowing as the sun sets and the children say, Mama, why do we light our candles at dinner while Bubbie & Zayde Appleseed (who light at sundown) do it right?
In the most recent issue of Reform Judaism Rabbi Harold Shulweis has a very sweet piece about work and Shabbat, and fear of Shabbat, fear of taking the time to pause to be spiritually engaged. He says we fear the Sabbath as slaves fear freedom. He makes the case for the challenge of taking this day of sanity and holiness. But I take issue with one of his comments. Rabbi says: "If there is shouting at the Sabbath table, the candles are extinguished." I’m not promoting shouting at the Sabbath table, or mean-spirited behavior. But when you decide to make Shabbat part of your life it may not be perfect, and it may be slow, and what happens at your table on Friday night may not always meet your expectations, and you may wonder about its authenticity.
Judaism is in many ways a set of prescribed behaviors, whatever we may believe about their origin, and behaviorists that we are as Jews, we just keep doing it. We keep making Shabbat - and it’s "making" Shabbat because although God’s seventh day will inexorably come, we have to affirmatively act to observe it. We have to act to make the time distinct. We can’t wait to be overwhelmed by the beauty of Shabbat - and moved to let it carry us along - it just isn’t gonna happen unless we make it happen.
So back to my own little family saga . . . Friday night after Friday night we laughed and fought and were frustrated, sometimes, and sometimes we were moved and in tune with Shabbat, sometimes. And gradually certain things happened - we found we never miss lighting the candles, even if we’re going out, like tonight. We avoid movies and meetings and school bazaars. My husband, who is not Jewish, gets the flowers, even if he usually can’t make it home in time for the candles. When someone drops in for dinner, they become part of what they perceive as a religious observance in our dining room.
And the results are incredible - a few summers ago friends were visiting from the East, practicing Catholics, and we were outside on a warm summer night. I slipped in quietly to light the candles but everyone followed me. And my friend said his breath was taken away by the power of doing this in our home, on a warm summer night, as naturally as the sun was going down. We were benching licht, but he could tell that we were sanctifying the day.
And another reward - my children and I gradually expand our Friday night observance, adding the kiddush ha-yom, the blessings for the children (and the dog). The portion from Genesis we recite before the bracha: …Va-yechulu hashamayim v’ha-aretz v’chal tz’va-am. No one has asked me for z’mirot, the songs of Shabbat, because frankly they beg me not to sing. Very gradually my kids and I have learned to make havdallah late on Saturday - that most mysterious and exotic of home rituals when we part from the Sabbath.
At times in our lives each of us may find ourselves alone on Shabbat or with people who don’t observe. And like the first step we might take with a child, we just have to light the candles for ourselves. Sometimes too much is made about the family nature of all we do Jewishly, and I have been guilty of taking the easy way out tonight by shamelessly using kids. But the point of course is just to do it. To hear it, and to do it. As Rabbi Alan Bregman says, the ritual of observing Shabbat is a binding act for Jews everywhere. As we light our candles, Jews all the over the world do so in an act of affirmation. Ken y’hi ratzon, may it be God’s will.
Chaverim, Shabbat Shalom.